Friday, May 7, 2010

There Is No "I" in Poetry

One of the most common questions a poet is asked is whether or not a poem is about him/her or not? Everyone always wants to identify the speaker of the poem as the poet. This particularly happens when you write first person narrative poems, which I do. This need to pin-down a poem is one I wish people would resist a little more. This doesn't just happen with naive readers of poetry, but with well-seasoned readers as well. I've been in many workshops where I was asked questions about the content of my poem in relation to my actual life. I typically avoid these questions and refuse to answer them.

What I love about poetry is how it can play with that line between fact and fiction. In all honesty, a good portion of my poems are based on very real events, situations, and feelings. No, I'm not going to tell you which ones. My life is where I get most of my inspiration as a poet, but because I am writing poetry I am not bound by the "truth" or by "fact." I often take the real and twist it into anything I want it to be. I often combine events that have nothing to do with each other and make them work in harmony.

Part of me enjoys that people try to decode my poems and figure out if I've actually done some of the things I've written about (I mostly like this because I often write about "shocking" things). This curiosity only becomes dangerous when someone will only look at a poem in relation to a poet's life. If I have, in fact, written a good poem, it shouldn't matter if you know anything about my life or not. If knowing me is required, then I will have a hard time making a life as a poet (I don't know that many people). What is on the page is always most important and often readers forget that. The poet doesn't actually matter that much once the poem has entered the world.

This seems to happen more often with poets than fiction writers. I think this is because people have the idea of poetry being so personal, and it can be very personal, but not always. In fact, many poets do not use their lives at all in their poetry (at least not directly). At the same time, anything I write is going to have me in it because it came from me.

In the end, I love to use the autobiographical in my poems, but I don't consider myself a confessional poet or a truth-telling poet (at least not in the sense that people want). Yes, I am always getting at a truth, but maybe not my truth. I always mix fact and fiction together to get the best results, and I encourage you, the reader, to enjoy the poem and to not try to un-mix it or pick it apart until it can't breathe and is left in a pile on the floor next to the empty gin bottle.

-Stephen (Liar)


  1. If all my first-person poems were real, I'd be a brown-hanky-wearing, impregnating, trick-turning son of a gun. :)

    Great post. Except, swear to God, I can see you writing to a porn star in prison...

  2. Really good post. Illuminating, too, for someone like me: I'm a persona poet, and it's often really obvious, if you know me personally, that the first-person poem is clearly not factually about me. But because of that distinction, sometimes the emotional authenticity of the poem gets called into question. What we should be focusing on is whether or not the poem DOES have emotional authenticity, regardless of the gender or details of its author.